Australia: a continental landmass of crocodile-wrestling locals, man-eating dropbears, and gigantic expanses of endless red dirt. Maybe only one of those things is true.
That said, there is truly, truly massive amounts of red dirt. On any Australian road trip through its gargantuan “Red Centre”, you will see endless horizons of ochre hues. Words cannot describe the scope of this untameable land.
In Australia, one can easily drive for days on end without the scenery changing at all and with only the occasional roo – jumping out in front of the car on a suicide mission – to break up the routine. But if you can handle the distances and duck the kamikaze kangaroos, the country can be one hell of a setting for some epic Australian road trips.
Of course, embarking on Australia’s road trips isn’t so simple. First, you’ll need a vehicle. You’ll also need to manage the equally untameable cost of travelling in Australia. (Damn you fuel prices in Oz!)
And of course, you’ll need to decide on which of the best road trips in Australia you’ll be Mad Max-ing. Spoiler: they’re all bloody magnificent.
So that’s why I’ve written this guide to travelling Australia by car (or van). A roundup of the most epic Australian road trips you can possibly sink your teeth and adventurer chomps into!
Fire her up cause we’re headin’ out back, mate.
Table of Contents
Exploring Australia: Prepping for the Road Trip
The word Australia is now pretty much synonymous with the word “backpacking”. This is primarily because countless backpackers from all around the world now flock here annually, either to take long working holidays (yay for obscenely high minimum wages) or to try and start a new life.
Meanwhile back in the rest of the world, (certainly in India, South-East Asia and South America) it often feels like most of the other backpackers you meet are Australian (closely followed by Germans then Israelis). In summary Australia = Backpacking. Right?
Despite this, the former prison colony has still not really been properly explored save by only a handful of very brave and foolish souls. Australia is massive, it’s red, it’s angry, and it’s often damn well deadly and therefore, most folks (residents and visitors alike) end up sticking to the coastlines.
However, if you want to discover the real Australia then you need to head away from the beach and into that deliciously daring ‘outback’. For a proper adventure, you gotta get away from humanity and into the sheer undulating arid heat. If you’re going to do that, then you’re going to need to get yourself a car and set off for an epic road trip in Australia.
The road is calling.
How to Travel Australia by Car
Firstly, you will need a driving licence. A serious traveller may even want to get an International licence although most “Western” licence (US, EU, etc.) will be perfectly valid down under. Be sure to get this back in your home country because everything is expensive in Australia.
You’re also going to need a vehicle for a road trip in Australia – no brainer! There are three ways to go about this:
- Hire a car or van in Australia – Renting a car in Australia is easy albeit expensive and much better suited to a short trip. There are heaps of car rental services in Australia but I recommend Wicked Campers. They’ve been in the game as long as I remember and gypsy travellers parked by the beaches of Byron Bay is a time-honoured Australian tradition almost as much as a beer and fish and chips. Probably also in Byron.
- Buy a car or van – This is option two and the true backpacker way to have a road trip in Australia. Backpackers buying and reselling vehicles in Australia is incredibly common (given the sheer scope of Australia) and acquiring a pre-loved gypsy warhorse and selling it again later is super viable. The best way to go about this is through online listings: social media groups, car sales websites, Gumtree, traveller/hostel message boards, or even dipping into your personal network.
- Steal a car or van – Jokes, don’t do that. Remember how I said Australia was an ex-prisoner colony. Dem fuckers be crazy.
Travel Australia by Van or Car
Right, so you may have noticed how I specified van OR car. That’s because both are viable, however, I do have a special love in my heart for living and travelling in a van. And truth be told, Australia’s barren empty wilderness and endless beaches are simply built for the vanlife.
Ultimately though, the choice is yours. A car is cheaper to acquire (generally) and requires less mechanical knowhow, but you won’t have the sheer magnificent awesomeness a home with wheels. That said, vans can be absolute primadonnas and konk out on you at the worst possible time so it’s a matter of choice and desire.
Lastly (and most importantly), it is worth noting that not ALL of Australia will be open to you in a standard van or car. A lot of Australia’s landscape is incredibly harsh and some of the absolute best road trips will only be doable with a four-wheel drive.
Either way, the vehicle type you choose is going to affect your packing for the great Australian road trip. To that end, here is some more recommended reading:
Car Camping in Australia Resources:
- The Ultimate Road Trip Packing List
- The Camping Master Checklist
- Best Budget Backpacking Tents
- Best Sleeping Bags
- And don’t forget a sleeping pad!
Van Travel in Australia Resources
(Yes I know it’s New Zealand but bar the much smaller scope and lack of murderous animals, the countries are quite comparable.)
Oh, and here’s a kickass post discussing the cost of a road trip in Australia. Ta-dah!
A Word on Australian Visas
Pretty much everybody will need a visa to enter Australia. The immigration policies and staff are zealous and you will be given the once over.
Travellers from most Western Countries can enter for tourism purposes on an Australian ETA (subclass 601). Whilst these are amongst the easiest type to obtain, do remember to apply before you fly or you risk deportation
Top 10 Epic Australia Road Trips: She’ll Be Right
Ok, no more blabber-blabber: the best road trips in Australia! Let’s hop to it and get this show on the road!
So. Many. Puns.
So. Little. Time.
1. Gibb River Road – Western Australia
Accessible only by four-wheel drive, and completely impossible to do in the wet season, this road is one hell of an adventure. Bringing you 660 km down a dirt track from Broome to Kununurra, you’re likely not to see another soul on the road.
Countless waterfalls and natural springs greet you along the way – just make sure to check for freshwater crocs before you hop in! It’s one of the best routes you can take for an Australian road trip.
2. Cairns to Cape York – Queensland
At the northernmost tip of Australia, practically touching Papua New Guinea, lives a place called Cape York. Far from the backpacker trail, it’s an amazing place to explore. (Other than the saltwater crocodiles lurking in the water. Australia’s wildlife: the reoccurring theme of this guide).
The road travels down dirt roads with many river crossings, so you definitely need a four-wheel drive, much like most of the best spots in an Australia road trip. As you travel up from Cairns, you’ll pass through Cape Tribulation – a tiny town nestled in the rainforest, with the Great Barrier Reef a mere 30-minute boat ride away. It doesn’t get more idyllic than that.
3. Darwin to Uluru – Northern Territory
While this one can be done with an ordinary two-wheel drive vehicle, the route is definitely far from ordinary. A hundred kilometres south of Darwin, you’ll reach the gorgeous Litchfield National Park. With more waterfalls than you can handle, a ton of different bush walks, and a unique (and odd) type of termite mound, you could spend weeks in the park.
Continuing south you’ll get a true taste of the Outback, with roads stretching far into the horizon. But don’t worry, you won’t get bored; those suicidal kangaroos will keep you on your toes as you cruise to the red hot centre of Australia. Be sure to stop in at Alice Springs on your way to Uluru – yes, the famous giant red rock – to check out some traditional Aboriginal art as well as the stunning views you won’t catch anywhere else on earth. You’ll find a few great hostels in Alice Springs as well. A great route to choose for an Australia road trip!
4. Great Ocean Road – Victoria
The Great Ocean Road is widely mooted as the “greatest” amongst the epic Australian road trips. For all those in love with the ocean, this road is an absolute must. Gliding along from every surfer’s paradises to massive plunging cliffs, the road is nothing short of spectacular.
Starting 275 km west of Melbourne, you’ll find the world-famous Twelve Apostles, where huge rock stacks rise from the waves. Love surfing (or the movie Point Break)? Get to Bells Beach, the setting of the last scene of the film, as well as Rip Curl’s surfing competition.
Be sure to stop in at some of the villages along the road as well; from Victorian-era buildings to small fishing communities, there’s something different to see and do all along this Australia road trip route.
5. The Greater Blue Mountains Drive – New South Wales
Mountains in Australia? Blue mountains? Yep, they’ve got more than just kangaroos and koalas out there.
Taking you from the metropolis of Sydney right up the middle of the Blue Mountains, this drive is anything but ordinary. From Jenolan Caves, filled with crazy limestone formations, to the Three Sisters rock formation in Katoomba, you will find plenty to do in the area.
And if you get bored of the main route, no worries! The Bluies (a bit of local lingo for ya there) is an absolutely massive mountain range with awesome hostels to stay at tonnes of branching tracks:
- Running from Sydney to Lithgow is the Great Western Highway (the main route).
- Parallel to the Great Western on the other side of the Grose Valley is Bell’s Line of Road.
- There are heaps of dirt roads and fire trails running into the bush everywhere to explore.
- And tonnes of branching roads in other directions. Check out the Megalong Valley or head towards Oberon for some more eye candy.
6. The Nullarbor Plain – West Australia
The long road to Perth takes in 2000km of red Australia at its harshest. It’s flat, it’s long, it’s arid, and it’s a big wide open space so don’t get acrophobic on me now. It’s also an utterly rewarding adventure and one of the best of the epic Austrian road trips you can do.
It’s fair to say that doing the proper crossing of Australia by car is both an Australian and backpacker rite of passage. Take a friend or get used to your own company because it’s a lonely journey and not for the faint of heart. But my god is it a journey.
If, however, this all sounds like too much then see number 7.
7. Tasmania’s Heritage Trail
Tasmania is Australia’s best-kept secret. The region boasts beauty in abundance but has somehow escaped consumption by the backpacker trail. It’s also a lot smaller and compact to travel; like a miniature New Zealand!
This was once the gateway to Australia and was where the original convict chain-gangs were set to work colonising the country. The highwaymen that once haunted these high-ways and by-ways are now gone but you still need to be mindful of those damn roos who may surprise you! This is quite a short and pleasant drive – it’s a lot greener too – so is the perfect contrast to the above Australian road trip.
8. The Alpine Way – New South Wales
Did you know you could fit the entirety of old Wales into New South Wales several times over? However, this route is only 121km long so should only take you a day (plus stops).
The best time to come here is in early spring when the snow is melting (yes, Australia gets snow) but you still get the alpine scenery. There are also loads of great, and safe, places to wild camp along the way.
9. Sydney to Melbourne
Ok, so we did kind of dissed the folks who stick to the coast back there. However, the reality is that if you’re gonna fly all the way to Australia, you will most likely either fly to Sydney or to Melbourne first – two of the best places to stay in Australia. Therefore you may as well make a road trip out of it, right?
There are loads of little coastal towns along the coastal route (think Summer Bay from Home & Away) as well as idyllic little spots for fishing and bird watching. This trip is also perfect if you’re short on time, an inexperienced explorer or if your car is not up to the harder, inland roads.
10. Kangaroo Island
If the mainland somehow feels too big, then take the ferry from Adelaide across to Kangaroo Island. As the name suggests, it’s an almost untouched animal sanctuary so you can expect more kamikaze kangaroos then we care to mention. To battle stations, comrades: they’re rebelling!
You can take your car onto the ferry (it’s the same deal for Tassie by the way) but if you are renting one, please check that the rental company allows you to do this.
Some Safety Advice for Australia
Seriously, there’s a whole other post in this but ok. Pickpockets, terrorists, murderers: these aren’t a concern so much in Australia (Ivan Milat notwithstanding). There are other concerns, however. Especially for travellers unwitting to Australia’s harshness.
The wildlife is, of course, the bad joke of the global community. Crocs, jellyfish, snakes, spiders, sharks… hell, an emu can kill you if it wants. Generally, you stay away from them, then they’ll stay away from you. The big exception is crocs.
Any area where crocs are common in the water (northern areas of Australia in particular), be hella safe swimming. In fact, probably just don’t swim. If a croc gets you, you’re dead: end of story. Australia isn’t some landscape of bloodthirsty man-eating monsters like people seem to think, but you need to pay attention.
Next, swimming safety. A lot of the beaches are rough and tourists have died going past their limits. Be careful swimming on Australia’s beaches: swim between the lifeguard’s flags, watch out for surfers, and if you get stuck in a rip, let it take you until it subsides. Common sense prevails when swimming in Australia.
Are you done, Dad? No. Two more things
One More Thing: Australia Road Trip Safety
Road trips in Australia are very different from the States, Europe, or most other places for that matter. Maybe it’s comparable to a hot Siberia.
Populated coastlines are different but in rural areas and especially in the Outback, there are a number of things to be careful about:
- Supplies – Always have enough food, petrol (including extra tanks), WATER; it’s quite possible to go days without seeing another human in Australia’s most vast areas and if you breakdown without these things, she’ll probably not be right.
- Stop, revive, survive – Famous safety motto in Australia: take frequent rest breaks and naps if necessary when driving. It’s actually amazing how many people die on Australia’s long, straight, empty roads – counter-intuitive, right?
It’s easy to lose concentration when you’ve been driving in a straight line staring at the same dot on the horizon for 6 hours. It’s easy to fall asleep at the wheel and flip your car or smash into a pole at 120+km/h. Be smart.
- Watch out for wildlife – All the jokes aside about suicidal kangaroos, imagine hitting one. That can be 6+ feet and 80+ kilograms of proper red-blooded Australian muscle and bone crunching your bonnet and coming through your windshield. It’s the same as hitting a person.
Hitting wildlife on an Australian road trip can be just as bad for you as it is for them. Plus, they’re so damn cute! Just watch out for them.
- Roadside Drug Testing – Can be common in some states and areas and the laws are an absolute mess. Just sayin’…
Last Thing! Get Insured Before Travelling to Australia
What if the kangaroos really do form an army and rise up. Do you know how many kangaroos there are in Australia? We’ll never stand a chance!
Na, you’ll be fine. You know why? Because you’re a smart cookie and you got travel insurance!
Shoutout from Will – The OG Broke Backpacker: Have fun on your backpacking adventure, but please do get insurance – take it from someone who has racked up tens of thousands of bucks on an insurance claim before, you need it.
A wise man once said that if you can’t afford travel insurance, you can’t really afford to travel – so do consider backpacker insurance sorted before you head off on an adventure! Traveling without insurance would be risky. I highly recommend World Nomads.
If there’s one insurance company I trust, it’s World Nomads. Find out why I recommend World Nomads, check out my World Nomads Insurance review
Let the Great Australia Road Trip Commence!
There! Done dad-ing you now. Now you can go and get yourself killed in Australia!
Kidding! You’re not gonna die. You’re gonna have an amazing time. You’ll see some sights like no where else in the world, you’ll face some challenges that’ll help you grow, and at the end of it you’ll say:
“Strewth, mate! Too bloody right. That was pretty fuckin’ orright!”
Have fun, amigos. Australia is truly breathtakingly beautiful and she offers something no other country in this world can. Truly, she is special.
So go hit her up! Take her for a drive – some epic Australia road trips – and go see something you never have before! Take some weed too. It’s a long fucking drive.
Updated: February 2020 by Ziggy Samuels at Zigz Writes Things.
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Freeborn Aiden. Senior Editor, resident travel insurance expert and 2nd longest-serving member of team Broke Backpacker. Can’t resist a colourful shirt, ideally one with no buttons. Rampant Psytrance addict and seriel cat fancier. Aiden recently realised that his entire reality is little more than a badly written 90’s sitcom.